Strikes hitting rural areas hard

Rye and Battle Observer letters
Rye and Battle Observer letters

From: Cllr.Sally-Ann Hart, Perryfield House, Udimore

I refer to last week’s reporting on Southern Rail, with particular reference that no deal is in sight between unions and rail bosses.

As Rother’s portfolio holder for tourism, I am concerned not only about the disruption to commuters, which is bad enough, but also how the strike and other actions by RMT and ASLEF, and the resulting disruptive rail service, is impacting on the very people these unions traditionally purport to champion: the poor.

Rural, coastal Rother District is not an affluent region of the South East. On the Government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation, it ranks little above the national average with pockets of deprivation and depends not inconsiderably on tourism for jobs and economic activity.

In England, rural tourism provides about £17 billion per year to the economy. In 2015, direct expenditure generated by tourism in Rother District (Rother) was £238.1 million (similar to the level in 2014).

Direct expenditure multiplies into £291.6 million worth of income for local businesses (through additional indirect and multiplier effects). This tourism-related expenditure is estimated to have supported 4,871 full time equivalent jobs in Rother.

This increases to 6,836 actual jobs once part-time and seasonal employment is added. These jobs are not only in tourism, but in retail, catering and local government.

Rother and Hastings have a huge amount to offer tourists, visitors and locals alike. It has an abundance of natural attractions; found in our beautiful beaches and glorious countryside for all sorts of outdoor pursuits.

We have a wealth of historic towns, buildings and gardens. We have world-renowned art galleries, vineyards and attractions such as The Source skatepark in Hastings, as well as the truly pioneering centre for arts and crafts in Bexhill, the De La Warr Pavilion. To enhance this, Rother District Council works very hard, together with partners including the De La Warr, Hastings Borough Council, local businesses and community groups, to be innovative in boosting the tourist, arts and culture offer and local economy.

Events, festivals and the like, attract visitors who, in turn, boost the local economy by spending locally, not only at the particular event. Local residents’ pride in their own community is important in economic development and regeneration. Events which target a community’s ‘USP’, such as the 1066 Battle of Hastings, promote a pride in, and an element of care of, our local communities.

Rye Bay Scallop Festival or Wild Boar Week attract visitors to sample the delights of Rother’s sea and woods.

Events promote a feeling of ‘working togetherness’ where individuals, organisations, local government and community groups come together to achieve an outcome.

The success of all this hard work depends on the visitors attending. It is widely accepted that rural tourism is challenged by infrastructure, specifically transport and connections and restrictions to broadband access. Better transport access to rural areas is required.

As Rye, Hastings, Bexhill, Eastbourne and Brighton are all served by trains to and from London, transport should not be an issue for day and overnight visitors – but evidence shows that it is.

There have been numerous reports in local and national press about the impact of the actions of RMT and ASLEF, not only on commuters but on local businesses and even on house prices.

Sea Life Brighton reported a five per cent fall in visitor numbers in peak summer season when these should have been high. Brighton Pier management reported a 30 per cent drop in visitor numbers, attributed directly to the industrial action between Southern Rail and the RMT union.

The rail dispute has been reported as hitting Seaford’s summer tourist trade. In July 2016, Eastbourne Chamber of Commerce wrote to Govia Thameslink warning that the disputes were causing significant damage to businesses in East Sussex.

Despite the De La Warr Pavilion seeing a jump in visitor numbers for the financial year 2015/16 (430,000 – up 40,000 on the previous year), the management are very concerned at the impact the industrial action is having on visitor numbers for this current financial year.

Rother has enjoyed a steady year-on-year increase in tourism receipts, but statistics show that growth was flat in 2015, due to a fall in day trips. Day trip volume fell by five per cent and day trip expenditure by 12 per cent. It is believed that the fall in day trips in 2015 is a direct result of the Southern Rail industrial action, which started in 2015.

I have no doubt at all that, when Rother tourism figures are available for 2016, we will see an alarming fall in overall visitor numbers. This is having a major impact on our local economy and the unions should reflect upon this.